Eric Gattmann
Eric Gattmann

Remembering Eric Gattmann, an educator committed to justice

Eric Gattmann, a Jewish and secular educator in the Bay Area, died on Sept. 14 in the peaceful embrace of his family. He was 96. 

From the 1950s until the early 1970s, Eric spent several summers as the educational director of Camp Swig in Saratoga (now Camp Newman in Santa Rosa). It was there that he mentored many young adults with his commitment to creative learning, deep respect for all people, kindness and patience. His gentle spirit and his willingness to take risks empowered and inspired me and many other young leaders.

His work as an educator never stopped, as he continued until age 93, leading popular classes in current events at many Bay Area senior homes, including the Sequoias and Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco.

Soon after the Nazis came to power, Eric and his parents left Germany and settled in San Francisco. After Galileo High School, he went into the military and was one of the Ritchie Boys — a remarkable group of German immigrants who were trained in intelligence work. He later attended UC Berkeley and settled in San Mateo with his wife, Hilde, continuing together for 75 years.

After a short time as a teacher, he became a principal at local San Mateo schools attended largely by people of color, the poor and vulnerable. Eric felt that education in these communities was critical in affording people a chance to shape good lives. After his day job, Eric would teach night courses, applying his love of history, politics and current events. He would then go to full-time work on the faculty and as dean at the College of San Mateo, where he helped establish and direct the Emeritus Institute.

Eric was deeply committed to social justice and doing his best to make life better, especially for those who had been left out of the American dream. His daughters, Linda and Leslie, have fond memories of Eric taking them to anti-war and civil rights rallies. 

Perhaps the greatest influence on Eric was German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber — as a person, for his humanism, and for his views of education and his concept of I-Thou (the sacredness of the human encounter). All of these shaped Eric as a person and his lifework as an educator. For Eric, education was as Buber described: “Education lifts the people up. It opens their hearts and develops their minds, so that they can discover the truth and make it their own.” 

Eric and Hilde were actively involved in the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, established in San Mateo in the early 1990s as a group based on nonviolence and the principle that sharing and listening to each other’s stories can build a path to peace. This group birthed many other programs around the United States and the world. 

Eric was blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren here and in Israel; he was “Saba” to the Israelis and “Opa” to the ones here.

They reflected on his life: “The strongest memory and feeling we have of Saba Eric is his love of life, his choice to look at things positively and with gratitude. You taught us to think about others — that all human beings deserve dignity, that poverty is something no one should experience. That we should be active in making this planet a better place.”

Eric was a lifelong learner. A few months before Covid, Eric asked me to look at his newest project. He was greatly impressed with a series of little books and gave me this one: “On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” He was working on one called “Why We Believe in God.” He wrote the following, the premise of his book: “Shema Yisrael, this book is valid for every religion which practices dialogue, compassion, and justice in the world.”

Eric was anchored in Judaism, and the way of life he celebrated was rooted in the values of dialogue, compassion and justice.

He always remained grateful for sharing life with Hilde, for Leslie (John), Linda (Shlomi), for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for his friends, for his opportunity to teach and converse and for simply living. 

Eric’s legacy is in a life well-lived — the many lives he influenced in his teaching, his kindness and the way he lived life with purpose and intention are a lasting blessing to the Bay Area community.

 

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Vice Chair of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities and deeply committed to helping JFCS/East Bay and HIAS in their lifesaving work of resettling refugees.